My Jewish grandmother, my father’s mother, died on Sunday at the age of 92. Grandma Pollins was my strongest link to my Jewish heritage. Now, in the wake of her death, I find myself wondering what, if anything, connects me to Judaism and the Jewish culture.
My father wrote in an email to friends and family:
“We sat with my mom and sister all day Saturday. Although she was in a lot of pain and mostly out of it, my mom momentarily recognized me, said my name, and smiled. During our vigil on Saturday, I tried to make some sense of life and death. I was looking for some evidence of a spiritual world to which my mom was hopefully entering. I must report I did not find any. I still believe, though, that our life here on earth does have meaning and is part of a grander plan that is a mystery.”
This is how I was raised by both my father and mother. I was not raised with a strong religious sense. I was made to know, however, from an early age, that the world is full of magic and mystery. This is how I hope to raise my children.
I spoke to my Grandmother a week ago. She was lucid, but immensely sad. She cried for the entire conversation, even as she affirmed, again and again: “I’ve lived a beautiful life, Seth. And I love you so much. Your wife is so beautiful. And your baby will be beautiful. And I love you so much.”
For thirty minutes, she recited some form of this affirmation, over and over and over. I just kept saying, “I know, Grandma. I know. I love you too.” Few people in my life have adored me so completely as my Grandmother.
It struck me, when I heard of my Grandmother’s passing, that, inevitably, my daughter will grow up without much of a sense of her Jewish heritage. When I think of my connection to my Jewish family, I think in terms of culture and bearing: a gregarious, frantic way of moving through life. I think of the nervous stomach I’ve inherited from Grandmother. I think of my inordinate passion for chicken, especially the fatty parts.
None of this, obviously, is necessarily Jewish–but it is, to me. The way my Jewish grandparents moved through life, the way my Dad, in protest and submission to what he inherited from his parents, moves through life, the way I move through life: this is all I know of what it means to be Jewish.
And yet, my father, despite his obvious Jewish bearing, is not exactly a steward of Judaism. My Jewish family, my aunt and uncle and cousins, are close in heart, but distant in space.
Of course, I will continue to light the Hanukkah candles and recite the Hanukkah prayer. I will continue to celebrate Passover. I will continue to eat the bitter herbs, dipped in salt. I will continue to drink the wine, and dot my fingers into the glass and onto my plate, pronouncing plagues as I do so, “Frogs, Locusts, Boils…” I want my daughter to experience these rituals.
But there will be no one in my daughter’s life who will be capable of teaching a larger sense of what it means to be Jewish. There will be no one as essentially Jewish as my Grandmother (or my Grandfather, who passed away a few years before).
Among so much else, this feels like a loss to me.